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Column: Buckle up, conference play is a bumpy ride

Just because Ohio State is heavily favored doesn’t mean wins are a given.

New Mexico State v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

During a long road trip last week, my husband and I played a game where we tried to name (1) an NFL player from every Big Ten school and (2) the top current NFL prospect from each of the 14 member programs.

We thought it would be easy, but considering we started with Rutgers, things went downhill pretty quickly (sorry, Devin McCourty). However, what became apparent in the ensuing days of watching NFL games was how many professional players hailed from Big Ten schools. Hearing AJ Epenesa’s name called for the tackle on Hassan Haskins who himself was being blocked by Nicholas Petit-Frere really drove it home during Monday night’s first matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans.

It’s natural to be biased toward your own division or even your own team. As Ohio State fans, we have dozens of pros in the NFL and pro prospects who will be in a few short years, so it’s easy to believe that the players who emerge from Columbus are far-and-above better than those from other programs even within the Big Ten.

Many Ohio State fans could name Michigan’s top draft pick from last season off the tops of their heads (Aiden Hutchinson), but it’s easy to forget just how competitive the Big Ten is as a whole, especially as we travel west—and just how many pro-caliber players come from those programs.

This past spring, Ohio State had six players taken in the NFL Draft. Big Ten schools not named Ohio State had 42. Statistically, Ohio State had a disproportionate amount of picks, but the Buckeyes finished with fewer than Penn State and as many first-round selections as Michigan. In total, five Big Ten programs had players taken in the first round and 13 of 14 programs had players taken in the draft. Northwestern, the lone exception, had two first-round picks in 2021, so we’ll let them slide.

In other words, there is a lot more parity in the caliber of athletes among the Big Ten schools than we as Ohio State fans might recognize at first glance. While a MAC school might have the occasional top prospect (I’ll forever remember when Ohio State opened their 2013 season against Buffalo and “pro prospect, Khalil Mack” as stated by the announcer), conference opponents have a lot more of those types of athletes on both sides of the ball.

These schools are not the likes of the non-conference opponents Ohio State has seen, Notre Dame being the obvious exception. They recruit from the same pools of athletes and, while Ohio State might skew with more four- and five-star recruits, these other schools have pro-caliber talent, too. As a result, performing how Ohio State did against Arkansas State could easily equate to a loss in conference play. The margin for error is thinner and the Buckeyes can’t afford to sleepwalk.

This fact is particularly relevant with the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener coming up Saturday. As Ohio State prepares to face Wisconsin, we must also remember that these elite athletes from every other one of the Big Ten schools are gunning for Ohio State.

Against a team like Wisconsin, too, which manages to run the clock, there simply is not the opportunity to even have many possessions in the game, let alone score a touchdown on each of them. Note Ohio State scored touchdowns on 11 of 13 offensive possessions Saturday against Toledo. That means a lower margin for error—any turnover or penalty which would have been glossed over in the early games becomes much more relevant.

It is not enough for Ohio State to have marginally better athletes, because the other programs have playmakers, too. In every conference loss Ohio State has had in recent memory (think Iowa in 2017, Purdue in 2018 and Michigan in 2021), we’ve seen it play out where the seemingly overmatched other team overmatches Ohio State.

These teams are seeking a conference title—a far more attainable goal than a College Football Playoff berth, but something which often feels like a stepping stone for Ohio State en route to the CFP.

On that note, Ohio State, frankly, is in if they win all their games. The same can’t be said for the other programs. That’s another reason there is such a massive target on Ohio State’s back from in-conference rivals. Remember how bitter Indiana was when Ohio State got selected as the Big Ten East champion in 2020?

It’s better for Ohio State when the Big Ten is better, so we might as well acknowledge the strength of the upcoming opponents. Again, it’s unlikely an undefeated Ohio State team would be left out of the Playoff, but it makes a difference when the Buckeyes enter the Playoff with wins over ranked conference opponents. We saw the downside of a down Big Ten in the mid-2000s.

Champions aren’t crowned in September. Teams have to play the games, and betting lines are gambles for a reason. By way of example, Air Force was one of just six teams favored in all their regular season games in the preseason, and even the Falcons lost to Wyoming last Friday night. Ohio State was one of the other teams favored in all their matchups—but those lines get smaller when it comes to Big Ten play.

Perhaps the point here is less-so about managing expectations, and more about learning the names of the future NFL stars who will be playing alongside our favorite Ohio State alums — because there are enough of them to make a difference.